The collapse of retail has left empty department stores scattered across the American landscape. It’s been especially hard for Sears, the once mighty retailer. But while the shells of the chain’s big-box stores sit empty in suburban and exurban strip malls, a few relics of the company’s past are now thriving for the first time in decades.
In the 1920s, Sears built several “plants” across the country. These were unfathomably large warehouses and distribution centers with ground-floor stores, built when Sears was primarily a mail-order company. As urban areas suffered and depopulated in the middle of the 20th century, so did these massive buildings. But today, six of the seven remaining plants have been resurrected in the image of the contemporary city. The first wave of rehabilitations came in the late 1990s, when Boston’s plant was converted to the Landmark shopping center and offices, and Dallas’s plant became loft-style apartments. Seattle’s plant, like an imperial palace retooled for a conquering emperor, became the global headquarters for Starbucks.
While those reuse projects were forward-thinking in their day, the more recent plant rehabilitations place a greater emphasis on mixed-use development and place-making strategies that integrate them into their neighborhoods. The Midtown Exchange building in Minneapolis and Ponce City Market in Atlanta have become defining structures in their cities, representing the benefits of postindustrial urban revival and the persistent challenges of gentrification.
This dynamic will only become more vivid with the rehabilitation of the last remaining plant, in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, which will begin construction next year. When it is complete, the Mail Order District will contain an almost cliché collection of new-economy uses, including “creative offices,” live/work lofts, a food hall, an active rooftop, and an exhibition space, all encased in a shell that dates back to 1927. This will be the logical conclusion to the current chapter in the history of Sears’s plants, which have always been emblematic of their times. During nearly every phase of their existence, these buildings have followed remarkably similar paths in their respective cities, contouring to the largest forces in American urbanism over the past century. The four most recent projects, in particular, make clear just how universal the tropes of postindustrial urban regeneration and gentrification have become, such that they now read like a formula.
In the 1920s, Sears had its own formula for adapting to an urbanizing, upwardly mobile population. Robert Wood joined the company as chief executive in 1925, and immediately refocused the mail-order behemoth on brick-and-mortar stores. That year, the company added ground-floor retail stores to four of its distribution plants. In addition to building hundreds more stores, Sears built six more plants before the ‘20s were out. As a hybrid of store and warehouse, the plants were the physical embodiment of the company’s pivot from rural-focused mail-order catalogues to urban and suburban retail stores.